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Study: Gender stereotypes affect girls' interest in STEM subjects as early as age 6

Study: Gender stereotypes affect girls' interest in STEM subjects as early as age 6
New research suggests children start to think STEM learning tracks and careers are only for boys as early as age 6. File photo by dotshock/Shutterstock

Nov. 22 (UPI) -- Gender stereotypes are not only pervasive, but they can also contribute to the gender gap in science, technology, engineering and math-related careers, according to a study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Researchers found that children start developing ideas that STEM courses are more fit for boys as young as six years old.

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"Gender-interest stereotypes that STEM is for boys begins in grade school, and by the time they reach high school, many girls have made their decision not to pursue degrees in computer science and engineering because they feel they don't belong," study lead author Allison Master said in a press release.

Master is an assistance professor of Psychological, Health and Learning Sciences at the University of Houston.

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Researchers used a mix of surveys and experiments to determine attitudes of a racially diverse sample of children and teens in grades 1 through 12.

They conducted studies surveying more than 2,200 children and teens beliefs about computer science and engineering, and conducted subsequent lab studies on a smaller sample that showed that these stereotypes may influence their participation in these STEM fields.

The surveys showed that 51% of children believed girls were less interested in computer science than boys, and 63% of children believed girls were less interested in engineering.

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In subsequent lab studies, 35% of girls were interested in a computer science activity when they were told boys were more interested in it than girls.

By comparison, 65% of girls were interested in the same activity when they were told boys and girls had equal interest in it.

"The large surveys told us that kids had absorbed the cultural stereotype that girls are less interested in computer science and engineering," said study co-author Andrew Meltzoff.

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"We discovered that labeling an activity in a stereotyped way influenced children's interest in it and their willingness to take it home -- the mere presence of the stereotype influenced kids in dramatic ways," said Meltzoff, a psychology professor at the University of Washington and co-director of the Institute for Learning & Brain Science.

"This brought home to us the pernicious effect of stereotypes on children and teens," Meltzoff said.

Study co-author Sapna Cheryan, a University of Washington psychology professor, said that if girls don't feel like they belong, fewer may pursue STEM careers.

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"Current gender disparities in computer science and engineering careers are troubling because these careers are lucrative, high status, and influence so many aspects of our lives," Cheryan said in the press release.

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Women remain underrepresented in STEM careers, about 25% of computer scientists and 15% of engineers were women, U.S. Census Bureau statistics as recent as 2019 showed.

The researchers noted that teachers and parents can help counteract the stereotypes by encouraging girls to participate in high-quality computer science and engineering activities.

Back in 2015, girls performance on a national science test improved following a renewed focus on science education, which especially encouraged girls to participate.

In particular, fourth grade girls closed the gender gap on boys and girls performance in 2015 on the science test, and in 2019 eighth grade girls also closed the gap.

"Though 12th-grade boys continued to score higher than 12th grade girls overall, there was no gender gap among students who were taking advanced science courses," Peggy Carr, associate commissioner of assessments at the National Center for Education Statistics, said in a press release in 2019.

In March 2017, then-President Donald Trump signed the Inspiring the Next Space Pioneers, Innovators, Researchers, and Explorers Women Act, which requires NASA to encourage women and girls to study STEM, and to pursue careers in aerospace.

The same month Trump signed the legislation, a German study found increased compulsory math courses failed to encourage female students to pursue STEM careers.

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"The dearth of gender and racial diversity in these fields may be one of the reasons why many products and services have had negative consequences for women and people of color," Cheryan said.

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